Sleep – we all need it but most of us don’t get enough. If we could just get the right amount of shuteye at night, we could unlock the secrets to becoming slimmer, sexier, smarter, and more fulfilled. It might even help protect you against COVID-19. Happy Ali’s Michael Sheather explains some of the science behind sleep and reveals why it may be the key to your future happiness, success, and a longer life.
Going to sleep is one of the best things we can do for ourselves. Conversely, sleeping poorly, night after night, is one of the worst.
Most sleep experts recognize that getting poor quality sleep night after night creates something they refer to as sleep debt. More than that, the debt must be repaid before the body begins to function properly again. Constantly operating in a sleep debt doesn’t just make you tired, it is actually dangerous to your health.
And perhaps even more alarmingly, these impacts happen even if you only lose a couple of hours sleep.
Eminent English documentary maker, internationally bestselling author and medico Dr Michael Mosley says sleep is an essential part of life and our ability to capture the best quality of life.
“It is no accident that countries, where sleep time has declined the most, are also the same countries suffering the most increase in rates of disease and psychological conditions,” says Dr Mosley who recently released a fascinating new study of sleep and how to overcome sleeplessness entitle Fast Asleep.
He believes there is a substantial link between our diet, the microbes in our stomach and the emotions and mood that contribute to an inability to sleep.
“During the past few years, we have discovered just how important the microbiome (all the 100 trillion microbes that live inside you) in our gut is to our overall health,” he says.
“We know, for example, that the microbiome influences our body weight by shaping our appetite and deciding how much energy our body extracts from the food we eat.”
He says that if your gut microbes are out of balance, you’ll get fat. An unbalanced gut can also lead to an increased risk of allergies and autoimmune disease, everything from asthma to multiple sclerosis.
But these little microbes also affect your moods and your sleep. How on earth can the little bugs in your gut, the same ones that make you fart, affect your mood and sleep?
Well, the truth is that those little bugs are so influential that studying them is now known as a branch of science called psychobiotics.
This is cutting edge science and it is still being researched but the early indications are that particular microbes are abundant in the gut particular psychological afflictions, such as anxiety and perhaps even depression, can be reduced.
And the reason appears to be the body’s increased production of hormones. Now, our bodies are complex chemical factories, particularly in our gut. But those little bugs get to work and break down all the little bits of food that we don’t fully digest, such as fibre.
In turn, the body creates hormones that influence our mood. These are hormones such as serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA).
GABA is a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger and its chief function is inhibiting neural excitement in the nervous system, a bit like a natural version of Valium. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that is known as the “happy” chemical because it contributes to happiness and a sense of wellbeing. Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter because it is released by the brain when we eat foods we crave or when we have sex. It also boosts mood, motivation and attention and helps regulate learning, movement and emotions.
Other microbes also put a muzzle on the production of a chemical known as butyrate, a major contributor to chronic inflammation which is implicated in a range of diseases including cancer and heart disease.
So, why is all this gut activity important? Because it’s these hormones and chemicals that help you get a good night’s sleep. A study by the Nova Southeastern University of Florida published in October last year monitored a group of men by monitoring their sleep and examining their poo samples.
The results were clear: men with the most diverse gut microbial activity had the best quality sleep. “We know that sleep is pretty much the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of health,” says Dr Tartar, a research professor who worked on the study. “Getting a good night’s sleep can lead to improved health, and a lack of sleep can have detrimental effects. We’ve all seen the reports that show not getting proper sleep can lead to short term (stress, psychosocial issues) and long-term (cardiovascular disease, cancer) health problems. We know that the deepest stages of sleep are when the brain ‘takes out the trash’ since the brain and gut communicate with each other. Quality sleep impacts so many other facets of human health.”
So, there we have it. A good gut begets good sleep. Good sleep begets good health. But how do we get a good gut if we don’t already have one?
Well, the best approach, according to Dr Mosley and many others, is adopting the Mediterranean Diet, packed with fibre-filled plant-based foods, OMEGA-3 rich oily fish and heart-healthy olive oil. Also, you could get hold of a good quality prebiotic and a probiotic recommended by your pharmacist or doctor.
Foods to include in your diet to help your gut microbes bloom
- Onions, garlic and leeks –these plants are prebiotic and full of antioxidants. They are also great to cook with and form the basis of many dishes from around the world. Think the nexus between Italian food and that wonderful onion, garlic, tomato base mixture known as soffrito.
- Beans and lentils – also prebiotic, these legumes form a huge part of the Mediterranean Diet and provide bucketloads of fibre for the gut. Think chickpeas, hummus, kidney beans, borlotti beans, cannellini beans, green beans, red kidney beans, black beans, peas and the list goes on.
- Apples and pears – also prebiotic and great for fibre as long as you eat the skin. So don’t peel them, ever. Strawberries, blueberries and kiwi fruit are also great (you might want to peel the kiwis but if you eat it, you’ll get a 50 per cent hike in fibre).
- Yoghurt – a splendid part of a Mediterranean Diet. Think full-fat Greek yoghurt without added sugars. But you can add the fruits mentioned above for sweetness. Yum.
- Cheese – not all cheese has useful bacteria. But there’s plenty in blue cheeses, cottage cheese, cheddar cheese as well as Gouda and mozzarella.
- There are lots of other sources for probiotics – think sauerkraut, kombucha, Korean kimchi, apple cider vinegar, and organic brine-cured olives.